Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How Life Imitates a Thomas Boswell Column

For decades, sportswriter and columnist Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post has penned beautiful, trenchant commentary. His baseball writing, in particular, captures the hard truths and romantic spirit of the game, mostly without succumbing to the wistful dreaminess so typical in the trade (except in his book titles: How Life Imitates the World Series, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, etc.).

Boswell always writes with a purpose to a cathartic conclusion. One professor of my acquaintance assigns his carefully crafted columns to her writing classes for basic training in rhetoric. Until his World Series preview column this morning, however, I hadn't sent a link to one of his WashPost pieces to a friend or relative for a couple of years, maybe more. Reading Boswell used to be a twice-weekly routine for me, a necessary act of recreation. Why no longer?

One answer: the rise of rapid-fire highlight and debate shows on cable. A high volume of quick, pithy takes on topical issues -- often at high volume -- has superseded the well-thought-out exploration of a single theme. In sports, Tony Kornheiser's and Mike Wilbon's Pardon the Interruption, a preeminent, high-quality example of this format, even employs a time bell to keep the discussion lively.

Another: On the Internet, vehement opinion-mongering in response to any mental stimulus has supplanted the omniscient, thoughtful, writerly voice of yore. Whether in politics, sports, or celebrity gossip, the role of today's columnists, talk-show hosts, and bloggers is to kick off an inflammatory debate that will maximize the number of page hits by rabid partisans. The inmates are in charge of the asylum. The tabloids have always been with us, to be sure, but careful consideration of topical issues by an informed commentator now seems as quaint as a Labor Day doubleheader.

But I think the primary reason is that Boswell's talent is largely wasted on covering the Washington Nationals, a quasi-replacement franchise for the team of his youth, the twice-departed Washington Senators. Brilliant writing about the nearby Baltimore Orioles in the Cal Ripken/Eddie Murray era could not assuage his grief and anger at Major League Baseball officials over not having a team in the Nation's Capital. Boswell's columns became a sweet, sad song of yearning for a new franchise to replace the loss and end the grieving. Along the way, he excoriated baseball leadership -- from the Commissioner-for-Life, to the Players Association's obstinate boss, to the Orioles' incompetent owner -- for debasing the game that he cherishes, and that his readers have come to cherish through his writings, week by week.

At long last, Boswell's prayers and entreaties were answered: Major League Baseball delivered a franchise to Washington. The Nationals, nee the Montreal Expos, arrived to play for D.C.-area baseball fans -- and were quickly confirmed as a flop, the new taxpayer-funded stadium sparsely filled, the new team's flaws ruthlessly exposed by baseball's unforgiving 162-game season. Even the best writer in the business can lose his edge when his lifelong dream is fulfilled, and it turns out to be a letdown.

But now comes the World Series, and life, like sportswriting, returns to the present tense. Boswell's beat shifts back from the local losers to the exalted winners. In his World Series preview column this morning, he sets up this year's classic match-up between the Phillies and Yankees -- brilliantly, concisely, and from several levels: analytical, critical, cultural, economic, inspirational. What he says about the World Series is...well, click here and enjoy the read. He says it better than I ever can.

Once again, Tom Boswell has made me care about this trivial, irrelevant, thoroughly wonderful game, infused with as much meaning as everything that's most important in my life. I sent the link to my friends.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Former Math Major, Reclining

She: Did you have any dreams?
Me: No, I had axioms.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fox TV Pulls a "Reverse Heidi"

No, it's not a college football play, a call option trading strategy, nor even a subchapter heading in the Swiss translation of the Kama Sutra.

(Yes, I know Swiss is not a language. Work with me here.)

On November 17, 1968, the AFL's Oakland Raiders came back from a 3-point deficit with 65 seconds to play, scoring 14 points to beat the New York Jets. A thrilling finish to a critical game that would have been forgotten, ultimately -- except for the paradoxical fact that nobody saw it.

Nobody saw it, because NBC executives saw fit to cut away from the end of the football game to begin the previously scheduled, two-hour broadcast of Heidi, a dramatization of the beloved children's novel.

Outraged football fans lit up NBC's switchboard in protest of the network's boneheaded decision. NBC Nightly News anchor David Brinkley, on behalf of the besieged network, apologized to viewers on his Monday evening newscast, concluding in his trademark sardonic tones, "Next time, the little girl from the mountains will have to wait."

Last night, after a 40-year wait, sports fans everywhere exacted their revenge on the pesky little milkmaid. Only it wasn't football but baseball that did her in; and it wasn't NBC but Fox Television; and it wasn't even Heidi but the Hugh Laurie medical drama House that got kicked in the milk bucket.

You see, Major League Baseball playoff games are notoriously slow-paced. Managers bring in parades of new pitchers from the bullpen in the middle and late innings, and each new pitcher needs warm-up time. Pitchers, catchers, managers, and coaches don't want to make a strategy mistake, resulting in endless conferences on the mound. Batters adjust their helmet and batting gloves between pitches and call timeout if the pitcher is taking too long. Closely competitive games often go into extra innings.

Last night's Dodgers-Phillies game, which aired on the Fox Television Network, actually ended in regulation innings, with a Jimmy Rollins double in the ninth giving the Phils the walk-off win. But by the time the parade of 10 pitchers ended and the bullpen catcher spat tobacco juice in the dirt for the last time, a mere 3 hours and 44 minutes later -- reasonable, actually, by post-season standards -- Fox's prime time programs had been delayed, starting with House.

Fox aired House in its entirety immediately after the ballgame. In today's TIVO-driven, DVR-equipped era of time-shifted viewing, however, many fans missed it. Those who had pre-set their DVRs to record House at its scheduled time found that their 60-minute recording consisted of 45 minutes of baseball and only the first 15 minutes of the medical mystery -- minus commercial time. Hardly enough time to warm up the MRI machine; barely enough time for Dr. House to insult two patients and three colleagues.

House fans were livid. On Internet message boards, they posted in protest. On Twitter, they tweeted in hash-tagged agony. A few Luddites (those with DVR capability, anyway) probably even phoned the Fox switchboard. But it was all in vain. None of them realized that it was Fortuna, Karma, and the Universal Studio in the Sky all rolled into one, messing with their viewing obsession and evening up the score. Heidi climbed the Alps; the Fates, represented by Fox, tripped her up (using House's cane) and pushed her back down the mountain, 40 years later. And then they stole her goats.

Nowadays, Dear Reader, if you happen to see a forlorn, 50-year old woman wandering around Canton Bern, tending no goats, her long, blonde braids streaked with gray, her empty milk buckets in crooked hands, take pity. Listen for a while to her wistful, bittersweet stories of when she skipped along mountaintops. Maybe give her a hug and toss a Euro or two into her rickety buckets. Above all, Dear Reader, please don't ever say the words "Baseball", "Fox", or "McCarver" in her presence; that would be the cruelest cut of all. For now you know what turned Heidi 'ho'.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In Which We List Ten Life-Long Favorites for Which I Must Remember to Thank My Parents, Who Introduced Me To Them

1. A. A. Milne
2. Dr. Seuss
3. The Wizard of Oz
4. Chocolate Jumbles
5. Macoun Apples
6. RPI Hockey
7. Beethoven
8. Scrabble
9. Tom Lehrer
10. Monty Python

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cheese Toast (n.)

When Seattle Mariners shortstop Jack Wilson was still playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he gave a television interview in which he displayed two of his old baseball gloves at his locker. "This one here is toast," he said, showing the reporter a well-worn piece of leather, "and this other one is cheese toast."

Wilson's gastronomical idiom has proven far from idiotic; no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary says so. The OED New Edition's update of 10 September 2009 introduced cheese toast (n.) as a new subordinate entry under the main entry cheese (n.).

Somehow, I doubt that Wilson's use of the term as a metaphor for fully depreciated athletic equipment is what the word-wonks at the OED had in mind. Still, it's fun to think that a guy who can turn a meaningful double-play can also spin a new double-meaning.

Jack Wilson is now gone from Pittsburgh, along with Freddie Sanchez, Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, and many others. Without this crew, the Pirates were 9-21 in September and October, and they finished the 2009 season with 99 losses.

May all your favorite teams avoid becoming cheese toast!


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